For the second consecutive season, the Arkansas Razorbacks have stolen a star player from the Oregon State women’s basketball program.
Last year, the Razors clipped super-rocket Destiny Slocum, and this year, they came away with five-star, All PAC-12 freshman Sasha Goforth, whose first-step explosion, power, and intensity make her my favorite player to watch in all of college basketball.
At first, it was easy to agree that Goforth went forth because she was homesick. Being the second star to go to Arkansas in as many years made me wonder if there wasn’t more to the story.
Transfers are common in the modern era of college basketball, but two from the same school, to the same school, in successive seasons are not at all common.
Specifically, I wondered if Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors was on a mission to pull down the Oregon State program. Did he have some still-festering grudge with Oregon State coach Scotty Rueck after their many battles when Neighbors was the coach at the University of Washington?
I did some digging into this gregarious coach named Mike Neighbors to see if he had said anything or if his nature itself might be that of a talent rustler.
I ran across some of his off-beat, quirky habits that made me think so.
For example, beginning in middle school, he had two things for breakfast: Coca-Cola and a Pop-Tart. He continues that today except now it’s Coke with Reese’s Peanutbutter Cups.
I learned he’s a man of excessive lists. He has a list of 1000 movies sequenced from his favorite down to his least favorite. He has another list of 100 television shows.
He once read at the pace of 40 words per minute which is less than one-half of my typing pace as a sophomore in high school. Someone told him he would never succeed in anything if he couldn’t read any faster than that, so he took a speed-reading class and now reads 800 words per minute.
During some summers, he chauffeured country and western bands in Texas.
There are more stories from Mike’s wacky neighborhood, but I’ll end with this one. During his recruiting of Kelli Kingma to UW, he grabbed her brother’s guitar and ripped some riffs that even Rick Neuheisel would envy. Kingma said, “I was sold.’”
After all of that, I figured I might be on to something.
Until I saw the last 30 seconds of this video:
That game was played in Sacramento, California, on March 29, 2010, when Neighbors was an assistant at Xavier. His player, Dee Dee Jernigan, missed two uncontested layups in less than 10 seconds and fell to the floor in agony as Stanford went full-court to score the winning basket. While others were focused on the dramatic finish, Neighbors was the one who rushed to Jernigan to comfort her.
That told me that Neighbors has a huge heart, and in my years on earth, I’ve learned that those with the biggest hearts have the least room for festering bitterness. I knew my original theory was wrong.
Remember those breakfasts of Cokes and Reeses?
At 29, Neighbors suffered his first heart attack. He had another at 37. He said those led him to realize how short life can be and give him an uncommon drive to do the most important thing: Treat people right.
Fortunately, he had a stent installed, and he has had no recurrences in the past 15 years. But he knows more than most people that life is day-to-day for him, and the best thing he can do is care for others.
So no, I don’t think Mike Neighbors is out to ruin Rueck or beguile Beavers.
However, I did run across something else.
I studied the play of Slocum, Goforth, and Chelsea Dungee who had transferred to Arkansas from Oklahoma, and I noticed some common traits:
1. All are drivers. They have fast, fast feet and are powerful to the basket.
2. All are creative players who expect the green light when opportunities appear.
3. All are stronger-willed than most. Some would say “hard-headed”.
I looked into the stars he recruited to Washington, Kelsey Plum and Amber Melgoza, and found they had similar traits. I am especially familiar with Melgoza because I watched her career at Santa Barbara High School and knew her nature and mentality.
All five of those players gravitated to Neighbors because his open offense encourages players to play free, create, and drive if lanes open.
Neighbors admits to being a Type A personality, so he feels right at home when it comes to strong-willed players. He once kicked Plum, the all-time leading collegiate scorer, out of practice for arguing with him. When asked about it, Plum said that she knew it would be iron-sharpening iron before she ever got to UW. She explained, “We’re both very Type A,” which is why she chose UW. “Sometimes I’ll even agree with him but act like I don’t because I don’t want to give in.”
Melgoza is the same. She comes factory loaded with a Type A personality, and her choice of UW came about because she watched the freedom that Plum had.
Dungee also noticed it. While still at Oklahoma, Dungee played against Washington, and while she overlooked the coach, she was in awe of how his players were utterly fearless with the ball and free to create. “That’s the kind of system I want to play in,” she said. A year later, she joined Neighbors at Arkansas.
Transferring to Arkansas worked well for both Dungee and Slocum as each was selected among the top 15 of last week’s WNBA draft. That’s not to say that they would not have been as highly esteemed had they not transferred, but it suggests they were happy with their decisions.
All five of those players are thoroughbreds who don’t want to stay in the gate.
Scott Rueck is one of the best coaches in America. The job he did last season is a statement of his mastery of the game. His ability to bring a losing team to the second round of the NCAA tournament and his overall rebuild at OSU are worthy of the big screen.
However, his style is one of players staying within the scheme because that is how OSU wins games it would otherwise lose. That explains why we so often saw Slocum create on her own only to be pulled for doing so. He’s not going to change, and no one should expect him to. He has been magnificent in Corvallis as a coach and even more as a human being.
But while Oregon State will continue to win many games, it will also lose a few stars. Thoroughbreds are born to run, and when some see open lanes, they’ll break the gates so they can run without reins.